For Atlanta Braves' fans, the conclusion to the 2011 season was a nightmare come true. The team experienced a harmonic convergence of problems in September that resulted in the team being eliminated from post-season play on the final day of the regular season. The hitters could not hit, the starting pitchers could not pitch, and the bullpen collapsed because of overuse. It was a miserable time.
However, the 2012 season is just around the corner, and I am feeling good about the team's chances. While I have a small concern the team might experience a hangover from last year and struggle, I do not think that will happen. The pieces are in place for a good season.
I am encouraged about the offense for several reasons. First, centerfielder Michael Bourn will be with the team for the entire season. He was acquired in a late-season trade last year, and he paid dividends. He gives the team an excellent leadoff hitter who hits for average and has speed. For the entire season in 2011, he hit .296 with 61 steals. Plus, his defense brings stability to the most important position in the outfield.
Next, second baseman Dan Uggla will almost certainly have a better season. Though he wound up leading the team in home runs (36) and RBIs (82), his batting average was miserable until mid-July when he was hitting .175. He rallied to hit .233 for the season, but he left tons of runners on base in the first half of the season. Expect that to change.
Third, Jason Heyward will be much better. After a breakout rookie season in 2010, he struggled with injuries and just about everything else last year. He only hit .227 with 14 home runs and 42 RBIs. Again, expect that to change. He is young and simply has too much talent to be a one season flash in the pan.
Toss in Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones, and the offense should be a consistent producer all season. 'Potent' would be too strong a word to use, but I would settle for a 'solid' offense. With the pitching the team has, that should be good enough.
Tim Hudson will anchor the rotation this year (though back surgery will likely have him out until May) and was strong again in 2011 with 16 wins and a 3.22 ERA. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurjjens pitched well, but injuries curbed their contribution in the second half of the season. Brandon Beachy led the team in strike outs and Mike Minor looks ready to be a permanent member of the staff.
Craig Kimbrel had 46 saves as a rookie, but the entire bullpen showed cracks down the stretch after having been used too much. Could this happen again this year? Between the injury concerns regarding Hanson and Jurrjens and the inexperience of Minor, it could. If nothing else, last year’s problems could help guide the team through the challenges of this year.
The bottom line is I am a realist. The Philadelphia Phillies are the best team in the National League Eastern Division. Barring any type of collapse by them, the Braves are playing for second place. However, the Braves should be in the thick of the playoff race this year.
If not, it is going to be a long spring and summer.